Guerrilla warfare is the irregular warfare and combat in which a small group of combatants use mobile military tactics in the form of ambushes and raids to combat a larger and less mobile formal army.
The guerrilla army uses ambush and mobility in attacking vulnerable targets in enemy territory. Guerrilla warfare is countered with counter-insurgency warfare.
This term means "little war" in Spanish and was created during the Peninsular War. The concept acknowledges a conflict between armed civilians against a powerful nation state army, either foreign or domestic.
The tactics of guerrilla warfare were used successfully in the 20th century by, among others, the People's Liberation Army in the Chinese Civil War, the Irish Republican Army during the Irish War of Independence, and Fidel Castro's rebel army in the Cuban Revolution. Most factions of the Iraqi Insurgency and groups such as FARC are said to be engaged in some form of guerrilla warfare.
Guerrilla () is the diminutive of the Spanish word guerra "war". It derives from the Old High German word Werra or from the middle Dutch word warre; adopted by the Visigoths in A.D. 5th century Hispania.
The use of the diminutive evokes the differences in number, scale, and scope between the guerrilla army and the formal, professional army of the state.
An early example of this came when General John Burgoyne, who, during the Saratoga campaign of the American War of Independence, noted that in proceeding through dense woodland:
‘The enemy is infinitely inferior to the King’s Troop in open space, and hardy combat, is well fitted by disposition and practice, for the stratagems of enterprises of Little War...upon the same principle must be a constant rule, in or near woods to place advanced sentries, where they may have a tree or some other defence to prevent their being taken off by a single marksman.'
So conscious of hidden marksmen was Burgoyne that he asked his men, ‘When the Lieut’t General visits an outpost, the men are not to stand to their Arms or pay him any compliment’, clearly being aware he would be singled out.
The word was thus not coined in Spain to describe resistance to Napoleon Bonaparte's French régime during the Peninsula War. Its meaning was however broadened to mean any similar-scale armed resistance.
Guerrillero is the Spanish word for guerrilla fighter, while in Spanish-speaking countries the noun guerrilla usually denotes guerrilla army (e.g. la guerrilla de las FARC translates as "the FARC guerrilla group"). Moreover, per the OED, 'the guerrilla was in English usage (as early as 1809), describing the fighters, not only their tactics (e.g."the town was taken by the guerrillas"). However, in most languages guerrilla still denotes the specific style of warfare.
The strategy and tactics of guerrilla warfare tend to focus around the use of a small, mobile force competing against a large, unwieldy one. The guerrilla focuses on organising in small units, dependent on the support of the local population.
Tactically, the guerrilla army attacks its enemy in small, repetitive attacks from the opponents center of gravity with a view to reducing casualties and becoming an intensive, repetitive strain on the enemies resources, forcing an over-eager response which will both anger their own supporters and increase support for the guerrilla, thus forcing the enemy to withdraw.
As a second part of the strategy, guerrilla fighters seek to become physically indistinguishable (Civilian Camouflage) from the communities through which they stage their attacks. Thus, by adopting the general customs & dress of the area they have infiltrated, they make it virtually impossible for an enemy force to distinguish friend from foe.
Since Classical Antiquity, when many strategies and tactics were used to fight foreign occupation that anticipated the modern guerrilla. An early example was the hit-and-run tactics employed by the nomadic Scythians of Central Asia against Darius the Great's Persian Achaemenid Empire and later against Alexander the Great's Macedonian Empire.
The Fabian strategy applied by the Roman Republic against Hannibal in the Second Punic War could be considered another early example of guerrilla tactics: After witnessing several disastrous defeats, assassinations and raiding parties, the Romans set aside the typical military doctrine of crushing the enemy in a single battle and initiated a successful, albeit unpopular, war of attrition against the Carthaginians that lasted for 83 years.
In expanding their own Empire, the Romans encountered numerous examples of guerrilla resistance to their legions as well. The success of Judas Maccabeus in his rebellion against Seleucid rule was at least partly due to his mastery of irregular warfare.
The victory of the Basque forces against Charlemagne's army in the Battle of Roncevaux Pass, which gave birth to the Medieval myth of Roland, was due to effective use of a guerrilla principles in the mountain terrain of the Pyrenees. Mongols also faced irregulars composed of armed peasants in Hungary after the Battle of Mohi.
One of the most successful of the guerrilla campaigns was that of Robert the Bruce in the Scottish War of Independence when using strategies of ambushes, avoiding large battles, destroying enemy strongholds and using a scorched earth policy, the Scots forced the English out of Scotland without a single largescale battle until the Battle of Bannockburn eight years after the start of the war.
In the 15th century, Vietnamese leader Le Loi launched a guerrilla war against the Chinese. One of the most successful guerrilla wars against the invading Ottomans was led by Skanderbeg from 1443 to 1468. In 1443 he rallied Albanian forces and drove the Turks from his homeland. For 25 years Skanderbeg kept the Turks from retaking Albania, which due to its proximity to Italy, could easily have served as a springboard to the rest of Europe. In 1462, the Ottomans were driven back by Wallachian prince Vlad III Dracula. Vlad was unable to stop the Turks from entering Wallachia, so he resorted to guerrilla war, constantly organizing small attacks and ambushes on the Turks.
During the Deluge in Poland, guerrilla tactics were applied. In the 100 years war between England and France, commander Bertrand du Guesclin used guerrilla tactics to pester the English invaders. The Frisian warlord Pier Gerlofs Donia fought a guerrilla conflict against Philip I of Castile and with co-commander Wijerd Jelckama against Charles V.
During the Dutch Revolt of the 16th century, the Geuzen waged a guerrilla war against the Spanish Empire. During the Scanian War, a pro-Danish guerrilla group known as the Snapphane fought against the Swedes.
In 17th century Ireland, Irish irregulars called tories and rapparees used guerrilla warfare in the Irish Confederate Wars and the Williamite War in Ireland. Finnish guerrillas, sissis, fought against Russian occupation troops in the Great Northern War, 1700-1721. The Russians retaliated brutally against the civilian populace; the period is called Isoviha (Grand Hatred) in Finland.
In the 17th century, Marathas on the Indian peninsula under their leader Shivaji waged successful guerrilla war against the Mughal Empire then founded the Maratha Empire which lasted until superseded by the British Empire.
In the 17th and 18th century, Sikh fighters in the Punjab region waged successful guerrilla warfare against Mughal, Persian and Afghan invasions, until they founded the powerful Sikh empire under Ranjit Singh.
In the Irish War of Independence in 1919, Guerrilla warfare was used in a successful attempt to allow Ireland to set up it's own parliament and to leave Britain.
Many clandestine organizations (often known as resistance movements) operated in the countries occupied by Nazi Germany during the World War II. The first guerrilla commanders in the Second World War in Europe was Major Henryk Dobrzański "Hubal". In March 1940, a partisan unit leaded by Hubal completely destroyed a battalion of German infantry in a skirmish near the village of Huciska. In the former Yugoslavia, guerrillas under General Draža Mihailović, known as Chetniks, joined the Germans in a guerrilla war against communist guerrillas under Josip Broz Tito and known as Partisans, who engaged the German and Chetnik troops in a guerrilla war. By 1944 the Polish resistance was thought to number 400,000. The strength of the Soviet partisan units and formations can not be accurately estimated, but in Belarus alone is thought to have been in excess of 300,000.
On the other side of the world, guerrilla forces in Southeast Asian countries were a mill stone around the neck of the Japanese. For example, tens of thousands of Japanese troops were committed to anti-guerrilla operations in the Philippines. Not only did this cause a drain on Japanese military resources, but the guerrillas prevented the Japanese from making the most effective use of the islands' resources (food, ore, civilian labor, etc.) in their war effort.
Present ongoing guerrilla wars, and regions facing guerrilla war activity include:
The guerrilla can be difficult to beat, but certain principles of counter-insurgency warfare are well known since the 1950s and 1960s and have been successfully applied.
The widely distributed and influential work of Sir Robert Thompson, counter-insurgency expert of the Malayan Emergency, offers several such guidelines. Thompson's underlying assumption is that of a country minimally committed to the rule of law and better governance.
Some governments, however, give such considerations short shrift, and their counterguerrilla operations have involved mass murder, genocide, starvation and the massive spread of terror, torture and execution. The totalitarian regimes of Hitler are classic examples, as are more modern conflicts in places like Afghanistan.
In Afghanistan's anti-Mujahideen war for example, the Soviets implemented a ruthless policy of wastage and depopulation, driving over one third of the Afghan population into exile (over 5 million people), and carrying out widespread destruction of villages, granaries, crops, herds and irrigation systems, including the deadly and widespread mining of fields and pastures. See Wiki article Soviet war in Afghanistan.
Many modern countries employ manhunting doctrine to seek out and eliminate individual guerrillas. Elements of Thompson's moderate approach are adapted here:
Some writers on counter-insurgency warfare emphasize the more turbulent nature of today's guerrilla warfare environment, where the clear political goals, parties and structures of such places as Vietnam, Malaysia, or El Salvador are not as prevalent. These writers point to numerous guerrilla conflicts that center around religious, ethnic or even criminal enterprise themes, and that do not lend themselves to the classic "national liberation" template.
The wide availability of the Internet has also cause changes in the tempo and mode of guerrilla operations in such areas as coordination of strikes, leveraging of financing, recruitment, and media manipulation. While the classic guidelines still apply, today's anti-guerrilla forces need to accept a more disruptive, disorderly and ambiguous mode of operation.
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